To view the full collection of photographs taken by the author, please click here.
Seventeen Suburbs in Search of a (Cycling) City
Outside of Detroit, there is no city in the world with its identity so tied to the automobile than Los Angeles. Affectionately described as “17 suburbs in search of a city”, the city of angels is a sprawling landscape designed around the internal combustion engine. It is blighted by endless strip malls, acres and acres of surface parking, countless drive-thru restaurants, and no fewer than 28 different freeways.
And so, when I announced I planned to spend three car-free days exploring those suburbs, friends warned me I was in for a big surprise. They said L.A. is simply too large to get around by bike, its weather too hot, its air quality too poor, its drivers too aggressive. Furthermore, each of those individual suburbs is developing their own unique cycling plan, with little or no coordination with their neighbours. It’s a patchy and disjointed network, they warned me, where bike lanes end as quickly as they start.
While there was certainly a fragment of truth to their cautions, I found — in combination with an emergent public transit system — getting around L.A. by bicycle surprisingly easy. It’s a long way from Amsterdam (or even Portland), but I saw enough pockets of enthusiasm and inventiveness to be optimistic about the future of Los Angeles, as this 20th century icon slowly and purposefully transitions into a more human-oriented, 21st century city.
Businesses for Bicycles in Long Beach
One such pocket of ingenuity is the City of Long Beach, located an hour south of downtown by light rail. There I met with business consultant and hometown gal April Economides, who detailed how they piloted the nation’s first Bicycle-Friendly Business District program, which she was hired to create in partnership with four districts.
“I began by gathering business owners in each district, listening to their direct concerns and goals, and helping develop a program that addressed their needs,” April explains. “For example, we laid down ‘Walk Your Bike’ sidewalk stencils to reduce sidewalk riding, and bought them bikes to run errands and make deliveries.” By allowing them to experience the benefits and challenges of cycling their streets, local merchants became supportive of growing the bike network into a number of highly travelled retail areas.
The program also included retail and dining discounts, the conversation of on-street parking into parklets and bike corrals, free basic repairs to get more customers riding again, and cycling woven into each district’s events and marketing in other creative ways.
The city’s various bicycling efforts have attracted new businesses to the city along the new lanes and cycle tracks, and several existing bike-related businesses have expanded. And the shift to pleasant, calm, more walkable streets is part of a ‘complete streets’ transformation that ultimately increases everyone’s bottom line. “Most folks in Long Beach are more likely to ride on the weekends, which bodes well for our ‘bike local, shop local’ message,” says April. “We want to do all we can to encourage them to leave the car at home, and shop, dine, and play locally. About three times more revenue remains in a city when you shop at its local businesses instead of chain stores.”
Conspicuous Consumption in Venice Beach
Enrico Moses, who runs the digital publication 7 Days Theory out of Venice Beach, an upscale community 20 miles up the coast from Long Beach, echoes their sentiment.
“The people choosing to move to Venice — along with the already self-conscious locals — are confronting a new ideology about their personal wealth,” he claims. “This has created a community deeply rooted in healthy lifestyle choices, rather than consumption for the purpose of signaling your status or wealth, like what you see in Hollywood or Beverly Hills. Here in Venice Beach, a bike has become the new symbol for how conscious you are about yourself and the community you live in.”
I rode with Enrico on Abbott Kinney Boulevard, the main drag in Venice, which is quickly garnering a reputation worldwide not just as a bike-friendly place, but also a high-end retail and restaurant district. In addition, it boasts the head offices of Linus, the poster child for the resurgence of the sleek, simple, civilized bicycle in North America.
This reputation is now bringing with it an influx of tourism dollars, as visitors flock to shop, dine, and cruise the beautiful bike path that stretches for miles along the Pacific coast. (In fact, I saw enough to justify a Christmas holiday for my own family, booking an apartment on Airbnb — naturally, one that offers bicycles for the duration of our stay.)
Millenials and Boomers Leading the Charge
For Ted Rogers, the citywide transformation has been dramatic since he started the BikingInLA blog in 2009. Spurred on by irritation with a bike lane that abruptly ended as it entered Beverly Hills (launching cyclists directly into L.A.’s unflinching car traffic) his advocacy has since snowballed into a full-time venture. “The biggest change in our bike culture over the last five years”, he declares, “has been the warrior mentality evolving into a celebratory one.”
For evidence of this, one only has to look as far as CicLAvia, the bi-annual event that closes down seven miles of downtown streets to automobile traffic, and regularly attracts 100,000 Angelenos of all ages to walk, cycle and skate in the heart of their city. “Once you see it, you can no longer argue that there isn’t a pent-up demand for safe cycling facilities in L.A.,” Ted insists. “And when you get people riding for recreation, it’s only a matter of time before they realize they can do it for transportation, too.”
The runaway success of CicLAvia has lead to the local transport authority sponsoring CICLE, a not-for-profit responsible for hosting 20 themed bike rides throughout the calendar year in various parts of the city. County officials have also earmarked a staggering $1billion to rehabilitate 48 miles of the concrete-lined Los Angeles River with natural vegetation and wildlife, complete with bike paths, trails, and acres of new public green space.
He recalls a time when the majority of cyclists daring to use the roads were ‘Los Invisibles’; the chiefly undocumented Latino population who could neither afford a car or attain a driver’s license. But that is changing quickly, and two distinct demographics — Millenials and Boomers — are leading the charge. Both appear motivated by a sense of independence, and the ability to take charge of their own health and financial well-being.
Ted is also quick to point out signs that even the most fervent of motorists are getting it. “They see the value in replacing just 5 per cent of car trips with bikes, buses and rail. In a city such as L.A., that could mean cutting your commute time by 15 or 20 minutes.” Remarkably, the Los Angeles Times recently declared itself “pro-bike”, and has invited Ted and other advocates to write editorials in support of specific cycling projects.
Car-Dependence Might Be Its Saving Grace
In the end, the things that supposedly make Los Angeles so car-dependent might also end up being its saving grace. Hours spent trapped in gridlock cultivates the conditions where its citizens dream of a better way, and where a half cent sales tax for transit funding can pass by a two-thirds majority. To encourage multi-modal trips, seats on trains have been removed to be able to facilitate more bikes, and cyclists are now welcome at all hours of the day.
Meanwhile, shrinking gas tax revenues mean Transportation Engineers must do more with less, and the rising cost of car ownership only increases the demand for alternatives. One thing is for certain: given how ridiculously wide they are, there is ample space for safe, separated cycling facilities on every single L.A. street.
Though many look down their nose at this sprawling metropolis, cities looking to flourish this century might have a thing or two to learn from it. Emerging cycling cities, such as my own in Vancouver, still yearn for the same level of business, political, and journalistic support. Seeing what they’ve accomplished in such a short time only makes me more excited and hopeful about the future, as advocates become better organized and funded. Heck, if bicycles can make it in Hollywood, they’ll make it anywhere. Am I right?
Words & Photography | Chris Bruntlett